Mario Cipollini is back after three years of retirement – the 40 year-old Italian left cycling after the 2005 Milano-Sanremo, but showed he still has a kick when he returned to professional racing yesterday in the 3.4-kilometre prologue of Tour of California. While Fabian Cancellara (Team CSC) won the day, 'Super Mario' finished 44th, six seconds faster than World Champion Paolo Bettini (Quick Step) and eight seconds faster than Oscar Freire (Rabobank).
"The size of the crowd was amazing and caught me off guard," Cipollini said. "It was great to hear so many people cheering my name and shouting encouragement. I was very pleased with my form today."
The rider from Lucca (Toscana) will face his first sprint in years today with the 156-kilometre run from Sausalito to Santa Rosa. Cipollini will be up against the likes of Freire, Bettini and Tom Boonen (Quick Step), and it remains to be seen if 'Super Mario' has that same sprinters' lust that he once possessed.
"I can't wait to feel the competitive spirit," he confirmed to La Gazzetta dello Sport's Luigi Perna. "It is important to me to give my maximum no matter what. I have nothing to prove, this return is only the beginning, to be able to build a future in my team. I have the curiosity to refind the atmosphere of the gruppo."
Any sort of lead-out train like the days of old will be limited because Team Rock Racing only started with five riders. The team was not able to start with Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla or Santiago Botero due to their links with cycling's Operación Puerto.
"I had said to [Team Owner Michael] Ball there months ago that cycling has taken a new direction," Cipollini continued on the exiled riders. "Now, he has the proof. He is a young go-getter that would like to turn the world upside down. ... You are not able to put yourself against the UCI [International Cycling Union] and the rules. I can say that I agree with the fact that those who make a mistake deserve a second chance, but the reality is this."
For the sprint Cipollini will be able to rely on Fred Rodriguez, a stage winner in the 2004 Giro d'Italia.